The Criminal Trial Process: What You Need to Know

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Criminal trials often seem like something out of a TV drama, with intense courtroom scenes and dramatic twists. But when you find yourself amid a criminal trial, it’s a different story. The legal process can be confusing, especially if it’s your first time. Let’s demystify the criminal trial process step by step, offering insights and tips to help you navigate this challenging journey.

Perceptions vs. Reality: Trials for Criminal Cases

Media portrayals of criminal trials can create misconceptions. In reality, it’s a complex process with various stages, each carrying its own significance. Understanding what to expect and how to prepare is crucial. It can mean the difference between getting a guilty and a not guilty verdict.

Here are the general steps that you can expect in a criminal trial process. Note: Rules of criminal procedure vary by jurisdiction. This is why hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney may change the outcome of your case.

The Criminal Trial Process: 10 Steps

  1. After the Arrest

Once arrested, you’ll experience the initial booking process. This involves taking fingerprints, a mugshot, and recording personal information. Stay calm, provide necessary details, and remember your right to remain silent.

Typically, after being processed, you’re allowed one phone call. Before getting released, you usually need to go before a judge for an initial appearance.

  1. Initial Appearance and Preliminary Hearing

Shortly after the arrest, you’ll appear before a judge for your initial appearance. If you were arrested without a warrant, you’ll have your initial appearance within 48 hours, and within 72 hours if you were arrested with a warrant. 

The initial appearance is when charges are read, and you learn about your rights. The judge may, at this point, grant bail (also referred to as bond) and set the amount of bail. However, this is not an option in every case. In Georgia, a magistrate judge can’t grant bail for certain serious charges. These charges include:

  • Treason
  • Malice Murder
  • Rape
  • Aggravated Sodomy
  • Armed Robbery and Home Invasion in the First Degree
  • Hijacking a Motor Vehicle or Aircraft
  • Aggravated Child Molestation
  • Aggravated Sexual Battery
  • Manufacture or Sale of a Schedule I or Schedule II Controlled Substance (Note: In Georgia, this includes marijuana)
  • Drug and Human Trafficking
  • Kidnapping, Aggravated Assault, Arson, or Burglary by Repeat Offenders
  • Aggravated Stalking
  • Gang Activity

If the case proceeds, a preliminary hearing follows. During this, evidence is presented to determine if there’s enough for a trial. If the judge thinks it’s more than likely that a crime happened and you were involved, your case goes to a higher court for more steps. 

The preliminary hearing doesn’t decide if you’re guilty or not, but charges might be dropped if there isn’t enough evidence. If you’re out on bail, you don’t get a preliminary hearing in Georgia.

Be attentive, take notes, and consult with an attorney.

  1. Formal Charges: Accusations vs. Grand Jury Indictments

Although you have been arrested by law enforcement and gone before a judge on criminal charges, a prosecutor must file a formal charging document in order to commence the prosecution of your criminal case. In other words, at this stage, prosecutors decide whether to move forward with your case or not. Traditionally, this comes after a preliminary hearing, but in some cases it may happen in lieu of a preliminary hearing.

The formal charging document identifies each crime for which the State plans to prosecute you. It must include the essential elements for each crime along with enough factual details to inform you of the allegations you’re facing. 

Often, the crimes listed in this document will be the same ones that law enforcement arrested you for. However, sometimes in reviewing cases for formal charges, prosecutors may decide to drop, add, or replace certain criminal charges in the formal charging document if they decide that a different criminal charge is more suitable than one of the charges you were arrested on.

In Georgia, the type of formal charging document depends on the nature of the most serious charge against you. In misdemeanor cases, the formal charging document is called an Accusation. Prosecutors have full control over what criminal charges the Accusation contains. In contrast, in order to prosecute a felony case, a prosecutor must obtain an Indictment from a grand jury. 

A grand jury is a panel that reviews the evidence and decides if there’s probable cause to proceed to trial. Only prosecutors, witnesses, and grand jurors can be part of grand jury meetings. Defendants and their lawyers can’t join, except when law enforcement officers are accused. Consult your attorney to understand this stage’s implications.

  1. Arraignment

The arraignment is where you enter a plea—guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Nolo contendere or “no contest” differs from a guilty plea because, even though you accept punishment, you aren’t admitting guilt. It’s up to the judge to decide whether to accept a nolo plea. The key advantage of pleading nolo contendere is that the plea can’t be used against you in future criminal or civil cases.

For instance, in a car accident case, if you plead nolo to a traffic citation and the other driver sues you, your nolo plea can’t be used as evidence in their personal injury lawsuit.

Having an attorney by this point is crucial, as they can guide you on the best plea based on your case.

  1. Discovery

During discovery, both sides exchange evidence. Your attorney will analyze the prosecution’s case and gather evidence for your defense. As a response, your attorney might also need to inform the prosecution about an alibi or plans to claim insanity, along with details about potential trial witnesses. This exchange typically happens well before the trial, allowing both sides to assess their cases, negotiate pleas, and get ready for the trial. Open communication with your attorney is key at this point.

  1. Pre-Trial Motions

Your attorney may file motions to challenge evidence, request dismissals, reset court dates, apply for or reduce bail, or address legal issues before trial. If you or your lawyer files motions during your criminal case, you might get a hearing date where you can present your arguments for those motions. This hearing is known as a “motions hearing.” These motions can significantly impact your case.

  1. Plea Agreement

The majority of criminal cases don’t go to trial for various reasons. Prosecutors might dismiss charges if they think the defendant is innocent or lacks enough evidence for a conviction. 

Usually, defendants, their lawyers, and prosecutors negotiate a plea deal to determine an appropriate punishment for the crime(s). The prosecutor makes an initial offer, the defense attorney responds, and when both sides agree, the offer is presented to the defendant. If the defendant agrees, a plea date is set, and the judge often approves the recommendation. 

In some cases, if the charges are not severe, a defendant living out of state may enter a plea without attending the hearing, known as a “plea in absentia.”

  1. Trial

This stage is the most complex in a criminal case. There are two types of trials: Jury Trials and Bench Trials. In Georgia, as in most places in the United States, you have the right to a jury trial for all felony and misdemeanor charges. In a jury trial, the judge is responsible for resolving legal questions while the jury is responsible for determining what the real facts are. In a bench trial, there is no jury, and instead the judge fulfills the role of the fact-finder in addition to deciding questions of law.

The right to a trial by jury applies to anyone charged with a crime where the maximum sentence is over six months. You need to ask for a jury trial to get one, usually at arraignment or through a written motion. Interestingly, in Georgia, prosecutors also have the right to request a trial by jury, and it will be granted if either party demands a jury trial in the right situation. You should consult with your criminal defense attorney on whether or not a trial by jury would be best in your situation.

The trial itself unfolds in several stages: jury selection, opening statements, presentation of evidence, direct-examination and cross-examination of witnesses, closing arguments, and jury deliberation. Your attorney will play a vital role in crafting a strong defense for you.

  1. Verdict

The jury (or in a bench trial, the judge) delivers a verdict based on the evidence presented. If found not guilty, the case concludes. If found guilty, sentencing follows.

  1. Sentencing

If convicted, a separate sentencing hearing determines your punishment. The judge will decide and impose the sentence. This decision can happen immediately, or the judge may take more time. In certain cases, presentence investigations or reports may be conducted.

The defense can present mitigating evidence to persuade the judge to give a more lenient sentence. Similarly, the prosecution can present evidence and arguments to increase the punishment.

Statutes determine the range of punishments, including jail or prison time, probation, fines, community service, restitution, banishment, and other conditions. In capital cases, the punishment may even include a death sentence. 

Your attorney can advocate for a fair sentence.

Appealing Your Criminal Case in Georgia

If you are dissatisfied with the outcome of your case, you can appeal the decision. Working closely with an experienced attorney during the trial minimizes the need for an appeal. A skilled criminal defense lawyer understands when and which motions to file, selects the right jurors, presents a solid defense strategy, and knows how to effectively question witnesses, among many other things crucial to your case.
Facing a criminal trial is undoubtedly daunting, but being informed empowers you. Consult with Arora Law for expert guidance throughout the process. Our experienced attorneys will stand by you, ensuring your rights are protected and crafting the strongest defense possible. Call us today for a free consultation and take the first step towards securing your future.


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